From Life on the Street to Easy Street

A lot of deals have come and gone since the one that made Chris Gardner a millionaire.

Gardner is the head of his own brokerage firm and lives in a Chicago townhouse — one of his three homes — with a collection of tailored suits, designer shoes, and Miles Davis albums.

His path to this extraordinary success took a series of extraordinary turns. Just 20 years ago, Gardner was homeless and living, on occasion, in a bathroom at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, Calif.

Gardner was raised by his mother, a schoolteacher. He says he never knew his father while he was growing up. But his mother had a way of keeping him grounded when he dreamed of things like being a jazz trumpeter.

"Mothers have a way of saying things," Gardner said, "She explained to me, 'Son, there's only one Miles Davis and he got that job. So you have to do something else.' But what that something else was, I did not know."

Gardner credits his uncles with providing the male influence he needed. Many of them were military veterans. So, straight out of high school, he enlisted in the Navy for four years. He says it gave him a sense of what was possible.

A Red Ferrari and a Turning Point

After the military, Gardner took a job as a medical supply salesman. Then, he says, he reached another turning point in his life. In a parking lot, he met a man driving a red Ferrari.

"He was looking for a parking space. And I said, 'You can have mine. But I gotta ask you two questions.' The two questions were: What do you do? And how do you do that? Turns out this guy was a stockbroker and he was making $80,000 a month."

Gardner began knocking on doors, applying for training programs at brokerages, even though it meant he would have to live on next to nothing while he learned. When he finally was accepted into a program, he left his job in medical sales. But his plans collapsed as suddenly as they had materialized. The man who offered him the training slot was fired, and Gardner had no job to go back to.

Things got worse. He was hauled off to jail for $1,200 in parking violations that he couldn't pay. His wife left him. Then she asked him to care for their young son without her. Despite his lack of resources, Gardner said, "I made up my mind as a young kid that when I had children, my children were gonna know who their father was."

Although a broker finally helped him enter a training program, Gardner wound up with no place to live. He was collecting a meager stipend as a brokerage trainee, and, like many working poor in America, he had a job but couldn't make ends meet.

The Kindness of Strangers

When he could afford it, he stayed with his son, Chris Jr., in cheap motels. When they returned home at night, Gardner says, he received help from some unexpected sources. "The ladies of the evening were beginning their shift. And they would always see myself, this baby and the stroller. … So they started giving him $5 bills." Without their help, Gardner said, there would have been nights when he couldn't have fed his son.

The Rev. Cecil Williams, founder of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, remembers the first time he saw Gardner, who had gone to the church with his son to stand in a meal line. He said, "I wondered, 'What in the world is a man doing with a baby?'"

Even to Williams, it was an unusual sight. The Urban Institute estimates that children make up 25 percent of the nation's homeless population, but most are living with a single mother — not the father.

‘It’s a Green Thing’

With Williams' help and a room supplied by Glide Memorial when he needed it, Gardner not only made it through the brokerage training program, he passed his licensing exam on the first try.

Gardner went to work making cold calls at the firm of Dean Witter. He says no one at the firm knew he was homeless. "I was the first one at work, I was the last one to leave … I'd be on the phone — 200 phone calls a day. That's what they noticed," he said. "Every time I picked up that phone, I was digging my way out of this hole."

Gardner moved on to Bear, Stearns. As he learned the business, he also learned that it came with some unpleasant baggage. Because African-American brokers were rare, one phone customer, assuming that Gardner was white, told racist jokes as he placed his orders. When the client came for a face-to-face meeting, Gardner says, "He was either gonna close his account with me or … I was gonna get all his business."

Gardner kept the account. "That's when I learned in this business, it's not a black thing, it's not a white thing, it's a green thing. If you can make me money, I don't care what color you are."

In 1987, with $10,000 in capital, Gardner started his own company in Chicago — operating at first from his home. His company is now an institutional brokerage firm with offices in Chicago's financial district.

Ironically, when San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit System issued new bonds to raise money a few years ago, one of the underwriters was Gardner's company — run by a man who, when he was homeless, had bathed his son in the bathroom of one of its train stations.

No Books, No Bucks

He has donated money to educational projects in memory of his mother. And he has been honored for his work on behalf of an organization called Career Gear, which helps clothe and advise young people who are applying for jobs.

When he speaks at high schools he keeps his message simple, telling students: "No books, no bucks. That's it."

He also has returned many times to Glide Memorial in San Francisco, not only to donate money, but to work on the food line where he used to stand. "I see me, I see my son 20 years ago," he said. "And I know how important this meal is to that individual, to that man, that woman."